When I saw that the online itinerary of Cambodia Cycling offered the options of a home stay, I got all excited. I thought staying with a local family would be a wonderful way to learn about real life and to meet people.
Once we were in the country, I started to worry about a home stay. What kind of house would it be? More like a boutique hotel or truly in a local home? The local homes look pretty darn spartan.
Our very last night was the planned home stay. South of Phnom Penh we turned into the hills and bumped along smaller and smaller roads until we entered the natural area of Kirirom National Park. Villages were far and few between. Finally we drove into a small village with beautiful, local houses. Well kept, ornately painted. The yards look swept and tidy. We noticed lots of ‘homestay’ signs on the houses. We drove through the village, past the school and temple and into an area where the road ended at some shelters – roofs sheltering large tables. This turned out to be the ‘Women’s Restaurant’ – a communal kitchen were visitors are fed.
From here, we hiked to some lovely waterfalls and back. Then we were taken back into the village and to one home that was to be our stay for the night. Slowly, over the next day, we pieced it all together.
In 2002 a German NGO came to this area to convince the locals not to cut down any more forest. They explained how slow the trees grow and how they could make a much better income by protecting the environment and inviting tourists to come and spend money. I’m not sure how long it took to convince the people but when all was said and done now, some 16 years later, the community thrives, the environment is protected, the people have learned diverse skills and host visitors from all over the world. If they come. They need a lot more publicity to make this place really known.
But the foundation is great and, so far, proving to be sustainable.
We are told that about 300 women now work locally rather than having to go to a nearby city for work. They take turns growing food, cooking it, cleaning, and preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the communal kitchen where the visitors come.
After our dinner of fried pork and pineapple, rice and fried noodles, we went to our home stay. The traditional house, like the ones we have seen everywhere throughout Cambodia, is built on poles. Underneath is a sitting platform on which a clean mat is spread for visitors. Upstairs is one large room. I’d been dying to see what was in that main part of a house.
Now I know. There is nothing! Absolutely nothing. Except for sleeping mats for the entire family and one tiny shelf holding some incense and a cup of water for the house spirit. No pictures on the wall, no decorations.
No airco! But at least there was a ceiling fan. No wifi. No running water.
A squad toilet only.
The host, for western guests, put a thin foamie and a pillow on the floor but those are only for the guests -the local sleep on the hard floor on a woven wicker mat. We had the room to ourselves and deducted that the family slept downstairs, somewhere, during this night.
The families in the village take turns hosting so that they are only displaced a few nights per month but earn money for hosting.
The kitchen of the house is a small wood fire outside on the dirt, with a pot or two simmering. The family’s cow sleeps next to it and is taken back into a field around 5 AM.
I had expected a night in a village to be peaceful and quiet but instead it was a cacophony of sounds all night long. The music stopped around 1:30 AM. The dogs never seized barking. The roosters crowed until midnight and started up full swing again around 3 AM. The crickets and other things happily chimed in. By 6 AM all of the motorbikes were roaring out of the village, taking the men to their jobs.
The women have learned many skills and organize the sales of drinks and food, they make a few crafts to sell and plan meals and overnights for the visitors.
The children all attend school and have the option of English lessons after school, taught by a volunteer.
All in all a very interesting look, not only at life in a rural Cambodian village, but also at how a well run sustainable project like this can both protect nature and provide a more solid income. It was explained to us that the money not only benefits the entire community (they share all income) but also supports very poor families living in the nearby area who were not able to provide enough food for themselves. These people now receive enough rice and staples to help support them.
It might be hot and uncomfortable, but I highly recommend spending time at a home stay. The experience is an eye opener. It gives a glimpse into the real Cambodian life and how people live in a rural village.